For a combination of reasons Tyler Zeller has been relegated to a deep bench player for the Cleveland Cavaliers this season. Zeller, who last year started 55 games, has only played in 14 of the Cavaliers games and only averaged a little over 7 minutes a showing. Not surprisingly Zeller’s stats have plummeted, down to 2.3 points per game and 1.8 rebounds. His shooting, both from the field and the free throw line are up but the limited sample size makes those stats relatively meaningless.
Factors in Limited Playing Time
Zeller had beefed up, by some reports 15 pounds of muscle were added to his frame, coming into the season. An appendectomy two weeks before the start of the season robbed Zeller of much of this weight and strength. Zeller is listed at 253 pounds, most likely measured after recovery from the surgery.
The addition of Andrew Bynum, Anthony Bennett and Earl Clark, return of Anderson Varejao and prevalence of small ball lineups have also limited Zeller’s opportunities. Bynum and Varejao generally share center responsibilities with Tristan Thompson manning the post in small ball lineups. #1 overall selection Bennett and free agent addition Clark are being given time to try to work through their early season struggles and find a rhythm, a chance not yet afforded to Zeller. Three of Zeller’s high minute totals (15, 14 and 15) came in games sat out by Bynum, with his other 15 minute game coming in the big blow out loss to the Spurs.
Brown’s continued lineup shifting has primarily revolved around the 2 and 3 spots on the team. Brown has a history of trust with both Bynum and Varejao that he just does not have with Zeller, yet. Zeller struggled last year guarding in the post, mostly due to lack of strength and confidence. The added bulk this summer was his effort to overcome some of those limitations but have yet to pay off.
Signs of Hope
Zeller has shown some signs of hope this season, and even last year when pressed into more minutes then he was ready for. Zeller’s effort was never questioned last year, only the results. Zeller runs the floor, fights hard on defense and never complained last year. This year, with very little court time, Zeller has not shown any signs of being a poor teammate.
During the draft process Zeller was called the most pro ready player and lauded for the touch on his shot. At UNC Zeller’s FG percentage was around 55% both his junior and senior seasons. Last year, possibly due to exertion on defense and being pushed around on offense, Zeller shot a paltry 44% from the field and 76% from the free throw line. This year those percentages are up to 52% and 80% respectively. During the 4 games he recorded double digit minutes Zeller has shot 56% and pulled down 15 total rebounds, showing that he still has a quality shot and is fighting for rebounds and mixing it up under the basket.
Why a Perfect Fit in 2014?
The Cavaliers are making every effort to make the playoffs this season and Brown will continue to give the majority of center minutes to Bynum and Varejao, barring an injury. While this may be frustrating for Zeller, it may be the perfect opportunity for him. Zeller can continue to work on his body, building up his strength, while learning to play defense in the Mike Brown system. Zeller has 2 players in front of him that have skills that he can learn from. Bynum’s defense and foot work on both ends of the ball is still elite while Varejao’s defensive and rebounding positioning and cuts on offense are needed skills for Zeller.
Next year, partially due to finances and even more due to injury/health concerns, the Cavs will most likely not have one of the two current centers. Either Bynum isn’t healthy enough and his second year is not picked up on his contract or Varejao is traded away due to his health history and age. This will slide Zeller into the backup 5 position and a good 20 minutes a game. Zeller’s time in the weight room and learning the defensive system will give him time to earn Brown’s trust.
As far as fit, Zeller could be a perfect fit, especially on the offensive end, for where the Cavs hope to be following the free agent class of 2014. Whether the Cavs can lure Lebron James back or not, expect them to push hard for high level small forward capable of breaking down the defense on the drive and draw double teams. Zeller’s shooting touch could be a perfect fit with this addition. His ability pick and pop or capitalize on drop off passes out of double teams will play well off a star 3 man.
For Cavalier faithful an easy, and apt, comparison is Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Ilgauskas, now working in the Cavs front office, had a similar frame as Zeller. Z was 3 inch taller but weighed in right around 260 pounds. Cavs fan remember Ilgauskas popping off a pick for a elbow or baseline jumper quite often. Can Zeller excel to Z’s quality play? Does Zeller fit in the future of the Cavaliers? Or has the bloom come off the rose quickly after being pushed into minutes too soon last year due to injuries?